Professors in Poverty

Professors in Poverty

A few weeks ago Salon published “Professors on Food Stamps: The Shocking True Story of Academia in 2014.” The article shares the plight of adjunct instructors, a lot of whom teach many courses at multiple institutions for minimal compensation.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”…

“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, Fight For Your Long Day. “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”…

One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said…. “We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

How big a problem is this in philosophy? According the AAAS report, 31% of philosophy faculty are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. According to the Salon article, 75% of all faculty in the US are adjunct. If these numbers are correct, then philosophy is doing better than average, especially since not all of that 31% will be adjuncts (they may be full-time non-tenure track instructors, for example). Yet that does not seem like grounds for complacency.

We have noted and discussed these and related issues here before: on whether departments should resist creating certain kinds of positions, on the advertising of exploitative jobs, on having the U.S. Department of Labor investigate these positions, on what departments can do to help graduates find jobs outside of academia, and so on. Articles like the Salon piece and one in The New York Times noted here, as well as events like National Adjunct Walkout Day raise awareness of the problem.

Many questions remain, though. Some of these are about what institutions can do and how they should be structured. Most of the discussions so far have focused on that end. But there are also questions about individual behavior here. What, if anything, should individual tenured or tenure-track faculty members do to address the conditions of adjunct faculty? What should individuals who find themselves unable to move from the cycle of adjuncting into more secure academic employment do? What is it about academia that leads so many clearly talented and intelligent people to stick with poorly compensated and time-consuming positions, rather than move to other careers?


(art: detail from Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address